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The commerce brought by the Mississippi River has always been central to the identity of Memphis, Tennessee. But unlike other river cities such as San Antonio, Memphis has never had an adequate way for its citizens to interact with the natural wonder that forms its western border. It was a stubbornly persistent problem, says Carol Coletta, president and CEO of Memphis River Parks Partnership (MRPP). And it wasn’t for lack of available real estate. “In 1824, the Astoria Trading Company packed up, moved west and gave its land to the city of Memphis,” she explains.

Two people sit on a bench underneath a wooden canopy supported by steel pillars, looking out at a sunset over the river at Tom Lee Park in Memphis.
Clusters of steel columns support the park’s glulam Sunset Canopy structure.

A 12.55-hectare tract that runs for 1.21 kilometres below the Chickasaw Bluff granted an especially great opportunity. First known as Astor Park, the area was renamed Tom Lee Park in 1954 after a heroic Memphis river worker who rescued 32 people from a sinking steamship in 1925. Various plans to spruce up the featureless flood plain had been proposed, but none came to fruition until 2017, when MRPP embarked on a radical reimagining. “As one of my staff members said, it’s been 200 years of possibility, 100 years of planning, and five years in the making,” says Coletta. 

A child runs past a giant wooden lizard sculpture on a playground at Tom Lee Park in Memphis. In the foreground, a playground bridge with wooden steps covers the top half of the image.
A playground designed by Denmark-based recreation specialists Monstrum features climbable wooden sculptures modelled after river otters, sturgeon and a salamander.

The organization tapped Studio Gang (as master planner and architect) and SCAPE (as landscape architect) to envision the new space. As Studio Gang founding principal Jeanne Gang notes, building next to the flood-prone Mississippi posed a particular challenge. “Everything has to be so robust,” she says. Gang and her team worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to transform the park into a gently rolling landscape studded with native trees like river birch and plants friendly to the monarch butterflies and other migratory species that travel the waterway. 

A view of the Memphis riverfront, with a bridge and pyramid in the background and Tom Lee Park in the foreground, featuring large lawns and a wood-clad canopy structure over top of a colourful activity court.

1Complementing the project’s hardscaping, three lawns totalling over 26,000 square metres are designed with festivals and sports competitions in mind.

2Two curved pavilions built from reclaimed materials integrate washrooms, food concessions and storage.

3The park connects to the eight-​kilometre River Line, a walking and biking trail completed in 2018 that links all the city’s riverfront parks.

The largest architectural intervention is the 1,486-square-metre Sunset Canopy, a glulam and steel structure providing shade and rain protection to a group of multi-purpose courts painted with a colourful mural by Memphis-born artist James Little. Other big attractions include a playground, a fitness area and a plaza that delivers mist by day and a light show by night. At the northern entrance to Tom Lee Park, a step-free, ADA-compliant concrete path creates an accessible connection between downtown Memphis and the river. 

A person bikes past a wooden canopy structure with a jagged roofline at Tom Lee Park in Memphis.
Memphis-born artist James Little covered the courts below the Sunset Canopy in a bright geometric mural.

“The programming that came from the community was really important, because we have something for everyone here,” says Gang. “It’s not like an elite art park that people don’t get. You have a basketball court, food, a running track and multi-use spaces. People will come here for various reasons, and hopefully discover something else. That’s my hope. Public space: It’s for everyone.”  

Memphis Overhauls Tom Lee Park as a Community Hub

Studio Gang and Scape team up to reimagine a prominent riverside site with no shortage of local history.

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